The Day the River Exploded
What happens when two brothers plunge through the ice of a frozen Wisconsin river? One refuses to give up, the other refuses to die, and each has a very different story to tell.
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Survival Tip: Safety KitsWhat Should You Always Carry?
Your three immediate needs are fire, protection from the elements, and the ability to signal. For fire, buy a flint “metal match” with a wooden handle and a scraper. (Traditional matches burn quickly and go bad, and plastic lighters require dexterity.) For tinder, saturate some cotton balls in petroleum jelly and stuff them in a waterproof case. (Tip: If you run out, you can shave wood off the metal match’s handle for more tinder.) For protection, pack an industrial-size orange trash bag and cut out a small hole for your head. For signaling, use a whistle and a small glass mirror. Whistles carry further than yells, and sunlight reflected in a mirror can be seen 20 miles away. Sound like too much work? OutdoorSafe carries all these thin…
I AWOKE ON A COLD February morning and looked outside and saw that eight inches of fresh snow had fallen! Just then my older brother, Dave, called and said, “Let’s go ‘bilin’. ” We started off from our homes on Wisconsin’s Chippewa River and an hour later found ourselves on the edge of a remote section of the same river, 25 miles north. Dave went first, and halfway across the 300-yard-wide river his sled disappeared. The river had exploded under his snowmobile’s track for 50 yards around him. I looked at him for a second not believing what I’d just witnessed. I’d seen the aftermath of accidents like this over the years. It always ended with a family member jumping in and trying to save the other one and drowning, too. I lay down on the edge of the ice and screamed for Dave to swim to me. He was 75 yards away, heading the wrong way, out into the river, breaking ice with his bare hands, trying to get to the other side. I could see he had at least 150 yards to go, and I knew he wouldn’t make it.
So I went downriver about a quarter of a mile to what I thought was good ice. Just as I thought, You better pick up your speed so you have a minimal imprint on the ice, the river exploded under me and I found myself 100 yards from shore fighting for my life. I don’t remember the cold as I was trying to bust the ice to get back to shore, but I knew it was getting to me. My arms were like lead and I had to do everything I could just to keep my head above water. I looked back and saw I had traveled only about ten yards. It felt like more than a hundred. I quickly realized this was futile. I had to get up on the ice. I had attended an ice-rescue course during my time in the Coast Guard and remembered that you had to spread out your weight and reach as far as you could to get your body up on the ice. I tried this several times, but just as I was lifting my legs, I’d break through. I must have been in the water half an hour by then, my brother 15 minutes longer. I took my helmet off and threw it toward the shore to mark a spot for rescuers to begin dragging for my body.
As I looked at the shore I saw in the corner of my left eye a bright shining object on the ice. It was my wedding ring on my left ring finger. I could not feel my hand. I felt the pain of my family losing two brothers, husbands, and fathers on the same day. My four children—who would tell them how hard I’d tried to stay alive? GET OUT!!! GET OUT!!! Get out of the water and help your brother, you asshole! He’s been in a lot longer than you. I felt my heavy boots pulling me down, so I kicked as hard as I could to remove them. I broke through the ice two more times until I was able to get a leg up and slowly shift my weight on the ice. Then I realized how cold I was. I looked down at my bare feet in the snow not knowing what I was going to do. I began to cry and said I was sorry to my brother for not being able to save him. I was telling his wife how sorry I was, and when I thought of his four kids I felt the most overwhelming fear and anguish come over me. I looked upriver toward Dave’s position and could see a house off in the distance. Dave was not moving. I ran up the river toward him. It’s hard to describe the pain one feels watching your brother die right in front of you.
Then he began to struggle again. That tough son of a bitch! Dave had been in the water for a little longer than an hour now and he still had fight. This inspired and shocked me with a bolt of adrenaline, and I got up and began to run as fast as I could to get help. I looked across the river and thought, I have to try to make it to that house a mile up. I started to inch out on the ice on my hands and knees. The ice groaned and cracked under me. I was about halfway across the river when the fear hit me. I so badly wanted to turn around and go back. When I was 50 yards from shore the river once again exploded with a pop. I swam to the edge, and for the life of me I don’t know how, but I pulled myself up on the ice. I rolled over, got to my feet, and began running again. I was on the west shore of the river and on land. I knew that I was going to make it, but I was sure my brother was gone.
I ran through the woods with snow up to my midcalf. When I was within 500 yards of the house, I heard a dog barking. Inside the house an elderly couple was taking their afternoon nap. The barking dogs awakened the woman. I yelled in what must have been an incoherent voice, “Dial 911! Dial 911! My brother is in the river and can’t get out!”
I went toward the river and saw Dave’s helmet floating next to the ice about 50 yards out. The horror of that moment will stay with me forever. I looked back at the barn where the home’s owner was trying to hook a boat up to his four-wheeler. He was having trouble starting the ATV, and I thought after all I had been through I wasn’t going to be stopped because of a cold-blooded ATV. No way. I jumped down the bank to the river and got on my stomach. I started inching my way out on the ice toward the helmet. The ice heaved and cracked beneath me, but I pressed on. When I got within ten feet of my brother’s helmet the ice gave way in front of me. To my surprise, I was still on the ice from my stomach down to my feet. I looked out at the helmet and saw it move. My brother was still alive! I screamed again and again for him to swim toward me. I reached out and the current brought his body to me. I grabbed the top of his suit and pulled him onto the ice. The rescuers arrived a few minutes later, and two of them were unable to move Dave. They asked me how I got him out of the water. When my brother was transported to the ambulance, his core temperature was below 83 degrees. Your heart can stop functioning around 80. On the ride to the hospital, I thanked him for holding on so long.
WHEN THE RIVER exploded under my snowmobile, my initial shock was not the cold. It was the reality that I would not survive this. Water penetrated every fiber of my clothing and got right to work stealing the warmth from my body. The river instantly filled my boots, pockets, helmet, and lungs. The weight of my waterlogged clothing pulled on me like a tow cable to the bottom of the river. I was losing this battle as fast as it had begun, inhaling as much river as air. My helmet visor obscured my vision. If I tilted my head to try and see the horizon to get a bearing for shore, my mouth sank below the surface and the river swallowed me up to my eyes. I had to swim harder, kick harder, paddle harder, fight harder, and tilt my head back and forcefully expel the river from my lungs when I exhaled.
You can’t die out here. Find a way out. You’ll only be able to fight for 15 minutes. After that you’re a dead man. I see the sky. Don’t panic. Breathe, breathe. Just under my visor I see treetops. Is that the shortest distance? Tilt your head. Can you see the horizon? The river is in my mouth. Spit it out, breathe.
I aim my visor for the treetops and begin to throw my arms over my head, busting the ice in a path toward shore. Bust the ice, bust the ice, bust the ice. Is this working? Am I going in the right direction? You can’t die out here! Swim harder. You have only 15 minutes to bust this ice and get to the treetops. Breathe. Expel the icy river from your lungs. Fight. If I can get close to shore, Jimmy can toss me a rope. Is that Jimmy yelling? Where is he? Tilt your head. Look for the horizon. Break the ice harder, faster, swim faster. My hands are gone. If he hits me with a rope across my helmet, can I still grab it?
Jimmy will get help. I have to survive. I have to give him more time. Throw your frozen arms over your head, break the ice. I cannot feel my legs below my knees. I am going to die. It is just a matter of time. Spit the river from your mouth and breathe. You are sinking. Swim harder. Is Jimmy in the river? Is he suffering this slow death like me? He can’t be. I heard him yelling. Maybe he went for help and broke through the ice. Spit the water from your lungs, kick, kick. You can’t die here.
I’m sorry, Wilbur, for taking a wrong turn on my snowmobile and giving your daddy’s life to this river. They won’t find my body. I’ll slip under the ice, and I could travel for miles in this current. Don’t cry, Sammy, your daddy loves your gentle heart. Jen, who’s going to take care of you? Don’t cry. Baby Marcella, you don’t even know me. How will you remember me? Is that Jimmy yelling? Where is he? Swim in a circle and see if it is really Jimmy. I see the snow on the hillside, the top of the distant riverbank. Oh, my favorite hemlock trees.
There is nobody here. That voice is in your head. There is no one here to save you. What do you think this is, a fairy tale? I’m going to die here, and it will not be long now. The frost has seeped through my knees and elbows. I cannot keep this up much longer. I will never be able to finish that shelf for Dani. She was mad at me. I hope she doesn’t remember. I’m sorry, Dani, for being a bad husband. I’m sorry for you not knowing where we are. I hope you can believe I love you.
I can’t die out here! Where are the treetops? Those are oak trees. I think those are the ones by that house I saw across the river. Bust the ice, spit out the river. I’m really not that cold. I still have a lot of fight in me. Just because I cannot feel my legs doesn’t mean they’re not working.
The sky is blurry, my helmet is full of water, the river is in my mouth and I am sinking into the darkness. Terror and rage fill my body! Get to the surface. JIMMY! JIMMY! I am so frozen I can’t recognize my own voice. I am not mad at Jim. Just please run faster. Run faster, Jimmy. This is all I have left. THIS MOTHERFUCKING RIVER IS NOT GOING TO GET ME! Do you want to die? Bust that ice. I don’t care how much it hurts. Spit out the river and bust that fucking ice.
He’s not coming. There will be nobody there to save me. This is the end. I’m sinking.
“Hold on, Dave. I’m coming to get you.” Is that Jimmy? The ice breaks again and the current carries me. Jimmy grabs my head and pulls me hard out of the water. He’s crying when I hear the most beautiful words I will ever hear: “DAVE, I LOVE YOU. I LOVE YOU SO MUCH. JUST HANG ON. YOU’RE GOING TO MAKE IT.”